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Spand-Ice offers wearable back pain relief

After years of suffering back pain due to a hyper-mobile spine, business professional and Stanton Heights resident Helen Behn decided it was time to do something about it. She used her eclectic background in retail and Internet business, e-commerce production, marketing and design to found Spand-Ice, a Pittsburgh-based startup specializing in clothing to manage back pain on the go. Now the company is ready to launch its first product, an invention inspired by Behn's trouble finding effective therapy.

"I struggled with that balance, especially having a very busy lifestyle, so I would often suffer through the pain,” said Behn. “Since I couldn’t find anything in the marketplace that could fit my needs, I decided to make a garment encompassing the best of current therapy products into a mobile and flexible design.”

After two years of research and development, Spand-Ice will soon introduce the Revive Tank, a full-zip, workout-inspired tank top that uses hot and cold therapy packs to address low- and mid-back pain. Made from a special combination of Spandex, mesh, powermesh and neoprene, the garment fits snugly to help reduce discomfort and inflammation, while still allowing freedom of movement. Research has already shown that the product works: According to an Oswestry Back Index scoring system, which gauges the effectiveness of treatment over time, 82 percent of Spand-Ice testers experienced a decrease in pain after two weeks of wearing the Revive Tank garment. 

In order to increase the company's exposure, and raise the $30,000 needed to produce factory minimums - 700 units - Spand-Ice will launch a Kickstarter for the Revive Tank on January 13, 2015. The campaign will also offer customers a chance to buy the Revive Tank at a special pre-sale price.

Behn believes that the Kickstarter platform will enable Spand-Ice to reach more people who either suffer from back pain or work closely with back pain sufferers.

“It is our plan to go after chiropractors, physical therapists and specialty back retail stores, and then potentially cross into the athletic sector,” said Behn. “By doing this campaign, it will help us learn more about our target demographic.”

Built in Pittsburgh: Get off the line with NoWait app

Anyone who has ever been put on a list upon arriving at a restaurant knows the frustration of standing in line with a grumbling stomach and nowhere to go. Pittsburgh-based startup NoWait has taken aim at that problem with an app that allows customers to wait on a virtual line and shop nearby until their table is ready.

NoWait President and Chief Product Officer Robb Myer said the app is successful because it serves a genuine need. Customers don't like waiting in restaurants any more than restaurants enjoy having crowded waiting areas. NoWait also serves a broad customer base, helping seat customers at larger chain restaurants including Burgatory and Chili's, often located in areas where there are better things to do than wait.

Customers with the app can make a reservation online and are notified via text message when their table is available, without even needing to step inside the restaurant. Patrons without the app can walk up to participating restaurants and get their name on a list and receive a text when their table is available as well. For restaurants that use the service, the app provides them with data so they can see problem areas and make improvements -- for example, if they discover Tuesday night regularly has far more customers at a certain time, they can adjust service accordingly.

Myer said the NoWait app has gained such traction that last year he learned it was being used to manage lines of people waiting to meet Santa at the mall. "Rather than have people stand in line to wait for Santa, they put their name on a virtual list and could go shopping, which is of course what the mall wants them to do so it's a win-win situation for everyone," Myer said.

NoWait has expanded from its Pittsburgh headquarters to an office in Manhattan, and now offers reservations across the United States. The company claims to seat more than 7 million diners every month and is growing every day, according to Myer, who foresees many different uses for the app that may extend beyond dinner reservations. According to Myer, anytime there is a line, there is an opportunity for NoWait to make life easier.

The Etsy hot list: 7 Pittsburgh makers to shop for the holidays

When it comes to shopping local, most people assume visiting a neighborhood coffee shop or clothing store will suffice. However, Pittsburgh artists and makers of all types are increasingly turning to Internet marketplaces like Etsy to sell their wares, so we've compiled some of the most interesting Pittsburgh-made gifts you can find on Etsy. 

They may not have storefronts on Penn Avenue, but their unique wares draw shoppers from beyond the Three Rivers:

SadieFlowerDesigns creates amazing hand-painted canvas shoes featuring anything from pink flamingos to Tom Brady. Priced at $50 and up, they can feature the design of your choice. The shoes are decorated by Sadie Flower, a 21-year-old artist who lives in the Pittsburgh area. "When I was in college, I bought a pair of white Vans and sharpie fabric markers," Flower said. "A lot of people loved the artwork I did on them and wanted a pair for themselves. After doing a couple just for fun, I decided to start charging for the designs. Now, three years later, I've done about 45-50 pairs of shoes for people of all ages." You can see some of her beautiful work in the slideshow above. 

If shoes are not on your wish list, pottery sold under the name Turnbuckle Farm is quite impressive and also costs $50 and up. The seller, who goes by the name Turnbuckle D, began her shop in 2011 and makes everything from wine decanters to cups and lamps in a distinctive style, often depicting various animals. She says her work is inspired by the animals on her farm. "I was born in Pittsburgh and grew up here. Moved away for a bit but realized my mistake and moved back," she said in an email interview. She describes her studio as "a spruced-up old garden shed that opens on two sides. Chipmunks run through."

Marcy Bates turns books into sculptural objects under the name Recycled Reads. She'll fold your name or favorite Steelers logo into a book to create an unexpected piece of original art. On her Etsy site, Bates writes that she decided to make book art because she had many books to work with as the owner of a used book store in Cranberry Township, Butler County. "I often come across books that are outdated or unsellable," she wrote. "With an extreme personal need to keep these books out of landfills I began creating beautiful art out of them." Bates spent much time and effort perfecting the folding process through trial and error -- who can even imagine all the folding! Her work is priced from $40 and up. 

Stentor Danielson, who works by day as an assistant professor of geography at Slippery Rock University, moonlights as Mapsburgh on Etsy, where he carves out intricate paper designs based on local Pittsburgh maps or any map of your choice. His Etsy business started as the result of a thoughtful gift he gave his former girlfriend: a carved-out map of the distance between their houses. She liked the gift so much that she suggested he sell the delicate lacy designs on Etsy. "With that bit of encouragement, Mapsburgh was born. It provided a great way to combine my interest in art with my love of maps. (I have a Ph.D. in geography from Clark University.) I've enjoyed making maps for so many different customers, and I always look forward to the new challenges that people throw my way," Danielson writes on his Etsy site. Prices start at $24 and are higher for hand-carved maps.

If you're still scratching your head, wondering which gift is perfect for a more casual acquaintance, an old standby has always been soap. Who can't recall getting a bar of soap or giving a primary school teacher a body product from Bath and Body Works? Since you know you're going to give someone soap, why not make it Hip Modern Soap, made in Pittsburgh by Carrie Robertson and her partner John Elliff. The couple makes the soap out of their Lawrenceville kitchen in a variety of blends including rosemary mint, vetiver, lemongrass mint, wild cherry, pink champagne and caffeine buzz. They also make bath bombs and other personal care products in a cruelty-free, all-natural and all-around hip, modern fashion.

The pair came upon soap-smithing kind of randomly: "Blending the DIY ethos with a strong desire to bathe regularly, the two decided one day that 'Hey...I bet we could do that,'" they wrote about their Etsy shop. The trial-and-error phase was then underway. Drawing heavily on Carrie's childhood memories of Grandma Bina sweating over a legit cauldron of pig fat and lye, the two decided that, "Hey...I bet we could do WAY better than that." They say that they are constantly just fooling around with the concept of "Will this get me clean?" Their soaps are not only solid scrubbing agents, but also marbled art objects. And all for $6 and up.

Alternate Histories, a card maker on Etsy, is one of my personal favorites. The card company created by Matthew Buchholz takes historical images, then inserts the fantastic. "My work began with a show at WildCard in 2010, a great store in Pittsburgh, where I had the inspiration to Photoshop a gigantic monster into an old engraving of the city," Buchholz writes on his site. "Since then I've expanded with different cities, holiday & greeting cards, original works and more, all taking historic images and adding in something from a pop culture sci-fi background." You can buy art prints or greeting cards from him on Etsy with titles like "The Menacing of the Great East River Suspension Bridge," featuring a historical painting with a giant squid arm interjected, wrapping around the bridge, or a card with a giant cat pushing over the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

In his Etsy bio, Buchholz writes that he has been able to travel to different cities selling his wares, and has had his work featured as part of the Futur Anterier show at agnes b. galerie du jour in Paris. "Each piece starts with the original image. I do a lot of online and flea market research to find interesting pieces, then I look for some monster, robot, alien or other creature that fits the style of the piece. I do all this in between sessions of noseball with my dog Otis," Buchholtz writes. Prices for his work are $20 and up. 

The last Etsy seller of note is No Sleep Boutique, created by late-night crafter Alaina Dadey. She makes bows, cufflinks, bow ties and earrings by hand in a vintage style. She captured my eye with her pizza cufflinks, which I trust you, dear readers, will make best sellers. Dadey says she gets the urge to craft most often at 3 a.m. "My shop started one night when I was having trouble falling asleep. I started making bows, and I fell in love," Dadey writes in her bio. "My third floor has been converted into a NoSleepBoutique studio. My studio in Pittsburgh is my perfect adorable oasis filled with wonderful things that inspire me. Finding new and wonderful fabrics is something that truly fuels my slightly caffeinated life." With prices starting at $5, they would be perfect stocking stuffers.

Because I am compulsive and couldn't stop looking at all the great Pittsburgh stuff on Etsy, here are some of my favorite individual items: a necklace that is actually a living plant, called a "wearable friend;" a beautiful droid-inspired jeweled ring; this strange $1,800 sculpture; and these crocheted pierogies. Your holiday shopping is now done. You're welcome.

Dream Cream: Ice cream on a mission

Ice cream is everyone's favorite dessert, regardless of the temperature outside. Dream Cream Ice Cream in Downtown Pittsburgh has all the flavors you need -- and it's for a good cause. 

According to founder Thomas Jamison, Dream Cream has sold over 100 different flavors of ice cream and used the profits to give back $60,000 to various causes since its inception. "We like to say that we don't sell ice cream, we sell dreams," said Jamison. When you buy ice cream in the shop, you are immediately congratulated for your philanthropy and feel even better than you would normally feel buying ice cream. Jamison said he liked ice cream as a product because it already creates a great feeling: "It ties into what we are trying to do," he said. "It just makes you feel good."

The projects funded by Dream Cream range from personal passions-- a filmmaker wants a new camera to make that special movie-- to funding for baseball teams that need uniforms. "The litmus test is does it make you feel warm and fuzzy inside," said Jamison. "If you want a Ferrari, I may not be able to help you, but if you want to fix your car so that you and your daughter can drive down to the Army base to greet your husband when he comes home, then we might be able to work with you," Jamison said.

Dreamers wishing to have their projects funded by Dream Cream can apply on the company's website and select their favorite flavor. A percentage of the profits from the dreamer's chosen flavor are put toward funding his or her particular project for one month. When I went to Dream Cream, I ordered the pumpkin and the popcorn flavors. Both were delicious and each funded a different cause. Jamison said each cause has associated volunteers who work in the shop to keep overhead low, allowing him to donate 25 percent of the shop's profits to charity. 

The business started three years ago as a popup shop, thanks to Project Pop Up Pittsburgh and an idea that came to Jamison during a stint of unemployment. "How do you create a steady stream of money to help people," Jamison wondered at the time. He decided that he needed to have a product that appealed to all demographics. "And ice cream is one of those things that people always want to buy…it’s withstood the test of time," he said. 

After leaving the banking industry, Jamison said he cashed in his 401K and used it to fix up the shop. He will be running a Kickstarter campaign in the spring to fund future renovations and hopes to expand the Dream Cream concept beyond the city limits. "We want to be a Pittsburgh-based company that touches many people across the country," Jamison said, "We believe with milk, sugar and a profit we will change the world." 

Check out the video below to see Dream Cream in action.
.

Dream Cream is located at 539 Liberty Avenue.
Winter Hours: 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. Monday through Friday
Summer Hours: 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. Monday through Sunday

Jamison said Dream Cream's ice cream in hot chocolate is a big hit in the winter months.

Whistl: Smartphone case uses technology to fend off assault

From nail polish that detects roofies to hard-to-remove undergarments, inventors of all types-- including some here in Pittsburgh-- are using their creativity to fend off sexual assault.

A group of Carnegie Mellon University engineering students formed a company called LifeShel and created Whistl, a phone case that is also an alarm aimed at combating sexual assault. They invented the device after one of their friends fell victim. The case fights back against would-be attackers by deploying a powerful alarm system while calling 911 and loved ones and recording whatever criminal action may be occurring.

The inventors have turned to Kickstarter to fund their project, which already has the support of start-up funder AlphaLab.



“As a survivor of attempted sexual assault, I know what it’s like to feel very alone and unsafe,” said Leah Yingling, LifeShel’s Director of Community Relations in a news release. “I was a college student, on my afternoon run, and all I had on me was my phone. I feel safer now having the Whistl there when I need it, to help me where I am, and to call for help with the click of a button.”

The case performs many of the same functions apps can perform, but without the same start-up lag time, according to LifeSchel Chief Operating Officer Alan Fu. "With other apps you have to unlock the phone and find the app, and when you are in a panic scenario, your brain can't work fast enough for that. You don't even have to look at your phone to engage the LifeSchel app," Fu said. In addition to allowing for blaring alarms, Fu said the product also has stealth mode so that users can activate it without an attacker knowing. "We launched a 15-unit test at CMU last month," Fu said, adding that many users became reliant on the app for security.

With two clicks of a button, Whistl strobes a blinding 90 lumen LED light and sounds an alarm at 120 decibels-- which is as loud as being front row at a rock concert, the creators say. The device sends a 911 alert and notifies loved ones through a group SMS message and also activates protective video and audio recording.

A limited number of Whistl smartphone cases will be available for an early-bird price of $57 through the Kickstarter campaign and cases for iPhone 5/5s/6 will ship in Summer 2015, with Galaxy S and HTC One series cases expected to ship soon after. The company has also created a LifeShel app that is free and will be available on the iPhone in the Summer 2015, followed by an Android release.

Every two minutes in the United States, someone is sexually assaulted, according to data provided by the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network. Fu said the company hopes to combat this problem, but added the app could be used in a variety of situations including "in the office space or even in cabs or in Uber or Lyft for driver safety. It also could definitely be used by the elderly because we have simplified the interaction," Fu said, citing the two-button operation.

To find out more about Whistl, visit http://www.lifeshel.com/

Help find E.T. in Pittsburgh

There are aliens in Pittsburgh walking among us, according to Mike Zelechowski, who is soliciting support on Kickstarter to raise $703 to help fund his search.

Zelechowski runs aliensearchguide.weebly.com, where he posts "up to date" information about Bigfoot and the aftereffects of alien abduction. Previously, he ran a podcast, but encountered some equipment failures that set him back, causing him to turn to Kickstarter to continue his search.

On his website, he claims to have had his first alien encounter eight years ago, while volunteering to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina. "I believe that extraterrestrials are here on Earth, having met one, and walking among us as we speak," he wrote on his Kickstarter page. People in nearby Kecksburg, Westmoreland County, known for its famous UFO crash, may agree with him. 

Whether Zelechowski can be believed or whether his work should be viewed as fact, fiction or art, the dedication he has to his craft (no pun intended) and his spirit of inquiry is admirable and innovative. He has published an e-book, "Alien Search Guide," which purports to help average people find aliens in their midst. Another e-book, called "Psychic Ghost Stories," may be worth buying since it's only $.99-- and Halloween is just around the corner.

"One basic tenet brings us here today, the search for alien life," Zelechowski writes in the introduction to "Alien Search Guide." "We have a curiosity that cannot be extinguished. We want to know more, we need to know more." With curiosity like that, if aliens are here in Pittsburgh, Zelechowski will be first to find them.

Thrival will show entreprenuers a good time

Many revelers will gather at Thrival this weekend to check out the festival's musical lineup, but for area entrepreneurs, the festival offers the opportunity to network, learn something new and maybe even be discovered, according to Thrill Mill CEO Bobby Zappala.

Zappala says the music and innovation festival started in 2007 because he and friends in the startup community felt they needed somewhere to have a good time while learning about what entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh were up to.

"People were doing interesting things, but they weren’t really communicating effectively," says Zappala, whose start-up incubator organized the festival. He described the festival as a local South-by-Southwest, "except instead of spotlighting talent from other places, we are shining a light on what's already here."

Buried behind the headlining acts, the event offers a free panel of workshops from September 8 through 14 aimed at entrepreneurs. Zappala says part of the thought behind this was to connect area startups with others who might be able to assist them and to help incubators like his discover new great ideas.

"In some places like Silicon Valley ideas are a dime a dozen," Zappala says, "but here in Pittsburgh, everyone wants to hear what you've come up with."

The panels are listed here, some require registration ahead of time, but Zappala says, "If there's something you're really curious about, just show up."

Who knows, your big idea could be discovered by one of the area's many startup backers including AlphaLab, Thrill Mill, The Sprout Fund or New Sun Rising. Google will also be hosting a workshop as will Chatham University.

Tickets to the muscial portion of the event are being sold at http://www.showclix.com/event/THRIVAL and cost $45 for one day and $75 for the entire weekend festival. Zappala said last year's event drew a crowd of around 2000 people and he expects this year's festival, featuring performers including Moby, DJ Z Trip and Talib Kweli to attract even more patrons this year.

99 problems but a parking spot ain't one

Finding parking before Pirates games may seem to require as much luck and skill as winning the game itself, but Parking Panda can help, according to spokesman Bryan Lozano.

Lozano said the company, which recently expanded into Pittsburgh, uses aggregated data from different parking garages across the city to allow users to find the most convenient and cheapest parking spots. The company also allows drivers to reserve guaranteed spaces before Pirates games, so you can roll up to the game as late or as early as you want without fear. "We are trying to make the experience seamless," Lozano said, "one of our tag lines is we want to make parking painless and that’s because it’s a pain."

As far as parking goes, in Pittsburgh we have it pretty good comparatively. In some cities, on street parking is so hard to find that an app called MonkeyParking allows drivers to sell public spots to each other! Thankfully we haven't reached that level (barring outrageous meter rates), but it would be nice if Parking Panda worked with the city or Google Maps (or a wizard?) to show drivers daily and monthly street parking regulations. Currently, the service only works with garages, but you can try your luck with street parking, then if you don't see any, you can use Parking Panda's iPhone or Android app to find the best deal in your area. "If a garage is sold out it will say that on the website, so you don't have to drive around in circles," Lozano said.

The service is also available in other cities including parking nightmare Philly and nearby cities like Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, so do your research before you drive into a downtown death trap aka Philly! "The hardest part is the behavioral change—getting people to realize this is even an option," Lozano said, "parking is often the last thing you do and many people don't put much thought into it until they can't find a spot." Don't be that person!

Lozano said that since Parking Panda allows garages to see the prices of competitors and reach out directly to customers, it may lead to more competitive garage pricing. "I think it’s also about pushing cities to examine how they do their parking," Lozano said.

But, if you are a neophyte or don't want to reserve a spot with Parking Panda, there's always the good ole Pittsburgh parking chair.
 

Lyft gets lift-off from PUC, but where will ride sharing take us?

After much battling, taxi service Lyft has received reprieve and will be temporarily allowed to operate in Pittsburgh, while competitor Uber is expected to receive results from its hearings with the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission this week.

Mayor Bill Peduto has spoken out in favor of the ride sharing services, and residents of Pittsburgh, who previously had difficulty finding cabs are in love with it. Patron Jess Netto used pink-mustachioed Lyft to pick her up from the bus station late at night, and was impressed with the driver's swift arrival and with her ability to see her ride approaching.

"Once you request a ride and a driver accepts, the app shows you a picture of your driver and a picture of the car they will be driving," Netto says.

She rode from Oakland to Lawrenceville and paid $10 plus tip.

"You can get anyone to say it's a simple process, but I don't think that's the unique part of it," Netto says. "I think that it's a very communal process. It allows you to get to know your neighbors, they are all about asking you to sit up front, its not about this service-client relationship," she adds.

The service is also donation based, with a suggested amount that may be raised or lower at customer's discretion.


Individuals using personal vehicles to tote passengers around is not a new thing. Jitney service still abounds, with ride share posters on craigslist claiming they will take passengers anywhere they need to go. However unlike Lyft drivers, who undergo strict background checks, you never know who you are going to get when you call a jitney. Similarly, jitney drivers take a risk with passengers, especially after ride sharing services like Lyft and Uber snatch up customers and use passenger rating systems to safeguard drivers. Jitney driving, which once was a possibly dangerous but thriving business may have arguably become more dangerous and less thriving.

However, in addition to providing a valuable service, Lyft and Uber provide valuable jobs. The companies work by allowing car owners with newer, four-door vehicles to sign up to be drivers. Drivers work on their own schedules and use the company's app to find and accept riders. However, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times, fighting for passengers has already started between the companies. Allegations of competing drivers creating false ride requests to divert each other abound. And local cab companies are none too happy about the appearance of ride sharing services, claiming it cuts in to their business. But Netto says her driver was a former cabbie and was happy to be working for the company.

"He told me it was nice to work for a place that cared as much about its passengers as its drivers," Netto says.

Right now, Lyft and Uber may be just what Pittsburgh needs.

"I remain thankful to Gov. Tom Corbett for standing with me and others in support of these innovative 21st Century businesses," Peduto said in a statement in support of the companies.

"We look forward to continuing to work with the PUC and state legislature on a permanent solution for community-powered transportation in Pennsylvania," said Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson, following news of her company's temporary license.

However, as we become increasingly dependent upon technology created in Silicon Valley to provide us daily services and act as a go-between for more and more of life's social and business interactions, we should think about the line between consumer and dependent and make sure to safeguard our autonomy. We should think not only about what these companies are providing to us, but about what we are providing to them, and set up agreements that will be beneficial to Pittsburgh's growth for years to come.

Pittsburgh Brewing Company pouring on new label

Are you over 21? If so, then keep reading because Pittsburgh Brewing Company just introduced a new brand seeking to appeal to craft beer drinkers and rolled out a Pumpkin Ale that will be available until October. The Block House brand is headquartered in Lawrenceville, with brewing operations taking place in Latrobe.

The beverage represents what Pittsburgh Brewing Company CEO Brian Walsh called an admittedly late foray into Pittsburgh's thriving craft beer scene in an interview with Pittsburgh Business Times. Walsh told the Times a double chocolate bock will be coming out in October, and another spring and summer product will round out the collection, providing a year round offering from the label available for purchase in stores.

Though we have yet to taste the Block House Brewing Pumpkin Ale here at Pop City, Beer Advocate gives the 7.00 ABV beverage 75 out of 100 possible points, which is a much higher score than Pittsburgh Brewing Company's flagship brand Iron City beer received. The beer is described as a medium-body ale in a glowing golden-orange color with subtle reddish shading. In a press release, the company says the beverage "enchants the nose with a wallop of graham cracker crust, ginger snap cookies, and subtle notes of brown sugar." The alcohol content isn't super high for a craft beer, but is above that of the brewing company's other products.

"The boldness of the 7.0% ABV is hidden beneath layers of creamy vanilla, hearty nutmeg and a hint of caramel that when blended together creates a homemade pumpkin pie taste," the press release states.

Though Walsh is late to the craft beer party, Pittsburgh Brewing Company has been around for a VERY long time. The regional brewery started in 1861, giving it over 150 years of experience making various beers in various cans as well as various amazing commercials for them. I just spent WAY too much time on their website watching their amazing oeuvre and have selected several vintage ads for your viewing pleasure. If you don't get a jingle in your head or a sense of Pittsburgh pride in your heart, check your pluse. We can only hope commercials for the Pumpkin Ale will be as inspiring.

Pittsburgh Brewing Company Commercial Oeuvre

Workin' on a Cold Iron presents a unique view of the city: 
 

But check out the rich history of the brewing company: 
 
And the song that will absolutely stay in your head, "The Pumper":
Another extremely catchy jingle aka my new favorite dance song:
#PittsburghPride :

And the strangest commercial, which I call "elevator music": 
Tell me which was your favorite commercial @fakepretty because I want to know I am not alone in my old ad #PittsburghPride obsession.

Touch your data with Kinetica

The Internet has allowed us instant access to more data than we ever imagined. Wikipedia is getting fatter and fatter everyday! However, as information proliferates, the question of how to organize it becomes more pressing. In the past, simple spreadsheets would suffice, but a new company in Pittsburgh wants to tap into the tactile nature of devices like tablets and smartphones and create data you can move and touch.

Jeffrey Rzeszotarski, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute developed Kinetica with assistant professor Niki Kittur. Rzeszotarski says Kinetica's goal is to make data interaction intuitive and allow data to be manipulated more easily.

"I just heard a good quote today that it's not about big data, it's about big answers," Rzeszotarski says. "We are trying to think of ways we can show the data so that people understand what it means and feel empowered to do something with it."


So far, the pair has invited users to manipulate all sorts of data, ranging from what one might find on the back of a cereal box to data related to the Titanic.

"In our testing, we've found that because it matches people's intuition, people can make more findings and communicate their findings better," Rzeszotarski says.

Excel users analyzing data on Titanic shipwreck passengers might extract facts such as the passengers' average age, but Kinetica users also saw data relationships, like the association between age and survival. While learning to use Excel spreadsheets to their maximum potential may be time consuming and boring, Kinetica presents data that seems to be alive as it moves across the screen based upon intuitive gestures. Kinetica users can manipulate information using their fingers to sort, filter, stack, flick and pull data points as needed to answer questions or examine data interaction.

The program also allows users to view multiple data points simultaneously.

"People often try to make sense of data where you have to balance many dimensions against each other, such as deciding what model of car to buy," Kittur says. "It's not enough to see single points—you want to understand the distribution of the data so you can balance price vs. gas mileage vs. horsepower vs. head room."

So when can we get our hands on this magical app? Rzeszotarski says he's still working on it. He recently obtained funding from AlphaLab for Kinetica's parent company, DataSquid and is in the process of testing the app. To get updates as they develop, sign up for Kinetica's mailing list here.

Nebulus brings musicians together in the cloud

For musical collaboration, just look to the cloud and you will find Nebulus, a new website that allows for virtual collaboration without having to store large data files on your home computer.
 
Created by musician and Carnegie Mellon computer science graduate Robert Kotcher, the site allows users to record and edit audio online and add on to tracks that have already been recorded. Kotcher says Nebulus is like a mixture of Google Docs the online document storage and editing application, Apple’s recording software Garage Band, and the popular music-sharing site Sound Cloud, “Except there are no local files you need to store,” he says.
 
Anyone who has a large iTunes collection knows that audio files can take up a huge amount of space on a computer, often slowing down its functionality.

“We are all musicians,” Kotcher says of his startup team, “we all have different musical backgrounds and we’ve all had the same problems, where we go and record our tracks, save it locally, send it to the next guy and eventually you end up with 10 different versions on your computer,” he explains.

If users want to download the final track from Nebulus they can, but they don’t ever have to store the rejected recordings and they can work together to edit the piece like users can in Google Docs.
 
Before cloud computing—yes I said it—musicians would all have to go to the same studio to record a song, creating scheduling problems and requiring travel. If anyone remembers, that great band The Postal Service (circa 2001, hits such as The District Sleeps Alone Tonight) got their name because the band members would actually send eachother recordings in the mail in order to collaborate on songs, because the Internet couldn’t store huge files. Welcome to the future!
 
“What we wanted to do was to emulate what musicians do in the studio through the layering recording process, where one player records a track and then another person comes and records a track over them,” Kocher says. He and his partners are all musicians and they’ve had a great time playing together while perfecting the software.
 
Nebulus is allowing us to share its link with you for the first time publicly, so use it wisely and record your next greatest work at Nebulus.io

Easily choose art with Easely

Pandora picks music, OkCupid gives okay dating suggestions and now, Pittsburgh-based start-up Easely will predict which art you will like.

The art vending website was devised after co-founder and CEO Ashwin Muthiah saw how difficult it was for his girlfriend to make ends meet as an artist. He decided to use his computer science background to attack the problem, and came up with a business that will launch this month. Easely uses visual and textual questionnaires to determine which artworks to send to which users in a process that is part data, part psychology and part gut instinct, according to Muthiah.

Users must tell Easely how much space they have to devote to a work of art and can also let the website know which color palate they prefer. Like the popular glasses website Warby Parker, Easely then lets users try until they buy, mailing ready to hang artwork to your door. "If you don't like what we send you, we’ll go back to the drawing board, literally" Muthiah says.

His goal is to "reinvigorate the social prominence of art" and make it as easy to purchase as other media, which can be obtained by the click of a button.

"A lot of people out there who love art don’t know how to get it or have tons of money to get it," Muthiah says, offering up his site as a solution to the problem.

The art available on Easely is nowhere near as expensive as art purchased through most galleries, giving it a broader appeal. It's Muthiah's hope that by making art accessible, new artists will be able to support themselves and find a market for their work. The website accepts submissions from artists and uses a team of curators to asses the work accepted into its collection. Artists earn 25 percent commission if the work sells.

"I see a lot of young artists turned away from art based upon the market," Muthiah says, explaining why he pays above average comission to artists, "we want to get everyone reengaged with artwork."
 
Fun Fact: Muthiah came to Pittsburgh from Atlanta to join AlphaLab, our friendly neighborhood startup accelerator. He says he will be hiring a software engineer and a business development person soon.

Emplified takes the guesswork out of employee retention

Right now the workforce is experiencing a major shift as baby boomers begin to retire and Millennials move in. With this shift comes a disconnect between traditional top-down management and employees, which has led to turnover and lost productivity across the board. Pittsburgh-based startup Emplified is breaking on to the scene with its employee-led retention solution for businesses that brings workforce engagement into the modern era.
 
“There’s a huge disengagement in the marketplace,” says Emplified founder and CEO Alex Gindin. “Only 30 percent of employees in the knowledge workforce are actively engaged in the market. The largest portion of disengagement belongs to Millennials right now because companies don’t know how to work with them.”
 
Gindin founded Emplified on the belief that workforce engagement is not something that can be delegated from the top-down through surveys and periodic performance reviews. 
 
“[Workforce engagement] must be cultivated and nurtured from within the organization and driven from the bottom up,” says Gindin. “It needs to show the context and impact of individual efforts on the organization and clearly reinforce individual career paths. This is where Emplified comes in. We elevate employees above their routine for a few moments each day in order to let them capture and curate their professional development, business impact, personal accomplishments and individual needs.”
 
This seems like a tall order, bur Emplified provides this service through its secure online platform and facilitates regular dialogue with individual employees to uncover critical blind spots, navigate career paths and help them take control of their employment.
 
“We empower employees to manage up by amplifying their skills, accomplishments and needs and provide managers with critical insights needed to grow, shape and retain their people,” says Gindin.
 
Emplified is looking to work with companies in the small-medium business market in high volatility turnover fields like technology, sales, marketing and advertising.
 
“Most of those companies don’t have HR capabilities themselves, or if they do, HR is not their core expertise or core competency,” says Gindin.
 
Gindin first had the idea for Emplified about seven years ago when he managed a team of employees at Morgan Stanley in New York. As a young manager, he says it was hard to understand what his employees actually wanted in an economy where it was difficult to retain talent.
 
Using a model that employs a framework rooted in cognitive psychology, Emplified elevates people above their day-to-day routines or workloads to give them a perspective of where they actually are, where they are heading and their progress toward getting there.
 
As the former director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Pantherlab Works in the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, Gindin has solid experience launching products and technologies and bringing them to the marketplace. Emplified recently completed its alpha phase and is streamlining the platform and addressing scalability this summer with plans to release a full-featured version in September.

Locally created, handsfree smartphone mounts rival GoPro

David Rost lives an active lifestyle and like many others in this digital age, he enjoys documenting his adventures and sharing them with friends and family via social media. The problem is that with hands tied up holding cameras and other technology, it can be difficult to fully enjoy the experience.
 
Several years ago, he was skiing in Colorado and wanted to film the beauty of the landscape for his kids. Not interested in spending $300-400 on a GoPro, he opted to use his iphone 4, holding the phone in his hand while skiing. This gave him the idea to develop something that would allow him to use his devices handsfree. Using elastic, clips, a few cases and his smartphone, he developed an early prototype for a chest harness. Since then, Rost launched a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $28,000 and developed a variety of mounts under the name READYACTION.
 
In addition to the chest harness, Pittsburgh-based READYACTION offers mounts for bike handles and ski poles, helmets and cars and motorcycles. And new to the collection is the "office" chest harness that allows for handsfree use of tablets, which would be useful for such professions as teachers and home inspectors, says Rost. All products are priced at $50 and under.

There are many everyday uses for the mounts, too. The ski pole and bike attachment can be used in the back of cars so kids can watch movies and the car and motorcycle mounts are perfect for using the GPS function on smartphones.
 
Rost says his products "are just making all your devices easier and more fun to use."
 
iPhone Life Magazine recently reviewed the READYACTION catalog of products and gave them a rating of four and a half stars out of five, praising the lightweight construction, easy on/off design, customizable brackets to fit any size smartphone, and secure fittings that hold devices safely in place, allowing for high-quality video footage.
 
Last week, READYACTION went from a provisional patent to patent pending in the United States and has an international patent pending as well.
 
"If we are able to get a patent on this marketplace, we will be a market leader and perhaps the only one in the market. That means we can license our products all over the world, country by country."
 
READYACTION products can be purchased through the company's website, and Rost is hoping to get them on the shelves of retailers in the not too distant future. 
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